A Different Read

 These are the appointments that will affect virtually all aspects of our lives in the near future. I’m urging you to do your research. Read about each of them, trying to find the strongest facts in support of and against the nominees.


Then, contact your senators. Your representatives can’t represent you if you don’t share your opinions. Tell them what you want them to do and why. (This last is optional.)


In Virginia, that would be Tim Kaine (phone # 540-682-5693) and Mark Warner (phone # 804-775-2314). I was told that the most effective contact is a phone call to the person’s local office. You will get through immediately and be treated politely.


If you don’t live in Virginia, comparable info for your senators is available online. Ditto for members of Congress. Alternatively, you could call the congressional switchboard at 202-225-3121, and they will transfer you to the appropriate office. Unfortunately, when I tried to do this, the switchboard was swamped and I didn’t get through.


american flag
We are citizens even before we’re writers. Be informed. Be involved.

Writing Mass Behavior

writing mass behavior
A large protest in Manhattan against the presidency of Donald Trump on November 9, 2016, the day after election day. [Creative Commons]
Today is the Trump inauguration. Tomorrow is the Women’s March on Washington. And every time you turn around, there is a football game or a rally of some sort. How can a writer make use of such events?


writing mass behavior
Donald Trump makes a campaign stop at Muscatine Iowa on January 24, 2016 [Creative Commons]
 1) As the background or setting for plot action. Two or more characters can come into conflict. They can initiate, confirm, or advance plans for future action, be it benign or malignant. They can use the crowd as camouflage for a murder, kidnapping, or elopement. You get the idea.


writing mass behavior football crowd
2) As a means of revealing character. Just being there makes a statement—about attitudes, beliefs, or interests, depending on what the gathering is about. Then, too, it’s an opportunity to reveal how the character feels about being part of this. Why is s/he there? Is it voluntary? Obligatory? Part of the job? Is the character interested? Resentful? Inspired? Surprised? Bored?
writing mass behavior
3) As an opportunity for deviance. In the sorts of situations under discussion here, most people behave in similar, uniform ways. Psychologists call this behavior matching. Think of the wave at football games, listening politely to a public address, spectators cheering marathon runners. But what happens when someone behaves in the opposite way? Would your character do that? Why or why not?


writing mass behavior riot
Soldiers of Ukraine’s Internal Troops in riot gear and protesters clash at Bankova str, Kiev, Ukraine. December 1, 2013. [Mstyslav Chernov/Unframe, Creative Commons]
4) As an opportunity for strong emotions. People tend toward emotion matching. On average, people experience things as funnier, scarier, sadder, etc., depending on the apparent reactions of those around them. Also, people are more likely to “let themselves go”—in ways usually forbidden, anything from sexuality to looting—if people around them are doing the same. Psychologists call this disinhibition.


So, at least four good reasons to view this weekend’s mass events with a writer’s eye. Can you think of others?

Communicating Without Words: Campaign Lessons

You’re a writer—so for purposes of this blog, communicating without words means without dialogue. And there are many reasons you want to be able to do this. The presidential campaign offers several educational examples.


whsv scott inmate hillary trump
See full post at www.whsv.com
In Staunton, VA, for the Robert E. Lee High School Halloween, Principal Mark Rowicki dressed as presidential candidate Donald Trump, complete with Make America Great Again cap. Secretary Stephanie Corbett dressed as Hillary Clinton in “jail house orange” outfit, complete with a chain around her waist and a badge indicating she was inmate Clinton.


The costumes provoked a storm of comment, from those who claim they were just funny and timely costumes to those deeply offended and/or outraged. The latter say things like, “If they’d both dressed as presidential candidates, that would have been fine.” Or, “How dare they? Clinton has never been convicted of anything illegal!” Or, “How might the kids feel, seeing their principal dressed like a man who’s said he wants to deport them or their families?”


Lesson for writers: Having two or more characters absolutely committed to differing interpretations of the same event is an excellent way to build tension and conflict. And, BTW, consider what our clothing says about your character in general and in specific scenes.
donald trump hillary clinton candidate toilet paper
If you look online for “candidate toilet paper,” you will find a myriad of choices. There are several options for Clinton and Trump, but also other 2016 presidential candidates: Presidents Obama and George W. Bush, and Mitt Romney, among others. The version that says “Dump with Trump” claims to be humorous and appropriate for both Democrats and Republicans. The one picturing Hillary and Bill Clinton together says, “Not Again!” so the intention is clearer. The seller who urges customers to choose the candidate they hate the most is the most direct of all.


Seeing just the TP: funny, disgusting, disrespectful, disdainful? More than one of the above?


Lesson for writers: Even if you think the meaning is absolutely clear, there’s always room for differing opinions. In your stories, you need to make the context clear, and/or state the interpretation(s) you want the reader to consider.


Just for practice: List as many inanimate objects as you can that you think convey a clear and unequivocal attitude/character of the owner. Then ask someone else to read the list and see whether you get disagreements.


halloween hanging dummies
A Kendall, FL homeowner hung two dummies from a tree in his front yard for Halloween. (See Daily Mail for one complete article about this, or search online for Halloween effigies of hanged black men.) They are reminiscent of lynchings of real black people. Note the nearby sign supporting Trump for President. The fallout was immediate and widespread. The presumption was that the man who hung the dummies is publicly supporting Trump. Subsequently, a neighbor said the sign was hers.


Lesson for writers: When two things occur in close proximity in time and/or space, they often lead people to assume they are related. This is an especially effective device for mystery writers who want to introduce red herrings and/or lead the sleuth to solve the crime.


TAKEAWAY FOR WRITERS: When it comes to plot devices, the presidential campaign is clearly the gift that keeps on giving!
oops did i roll my eyes out loud
For future consideration: The Loud Voice of Body Language!

The Importance of “What” and “Why”

new yorker hillary clinton donald trump campaign reading

I’ve written a couple of blog posts about what writers can learn from the current political campaigns. A piece in the October 31st issue of The New Yorker takes a different approach.


presumptive thomas mallon campaign reading
Thomas Mallon is a novelist, essayist, and critic whose book Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years is now available in paperback. His novels usually portray politics and politicians from a POV other than the political “star.”  In “Presumptive” he talks about who would be his protagonist if he were to write a novel based on 2016—and why. He makes some excellent points about what makes an effective main character.


the unconnected campaign reading
The same issue of The New Yorker features an article by George Packer. Although he starts with an interview with Hillary Clinton, the bulk of the article is tracing the historical bases of current allegiances to the Republican and Democratic parties. He’s thorough and scholarly but highly readable. Read it with a view to what makes compelling nonfiction.


Whether you lean toward fiction or nonfiction, the principles of a good story are the same: you need a compelling what (in the form of a character and/or event) and a believable why (the motivation or circumstances that molds the outcome).


american nations colin woodard
[Photo credit: Amazon]
Continuing the election-related focus, I recommend Colin Woodard’s American Nations: A History of the Eleven Regional Cultures of North America.  It might just as well be titled “The United States and How It Got This Way.” His premise is that sub-cultures within the U.S. today can be understood in terms of who settled various parts of the continent, when, and under what circumstances. His labeling of the regions takes a bit of getting used to, but he provides a map. Overall, he has closely tied what to why in a highly readable and (for me) informative book.


FINAL TAKEAWAY: Election season is a great time to read voraciously!

Campaign Writing: Choosing the Lesser of Two Evils

donald trump rnc choosing lesser two evils
hillary clinton cspan choosing lesser two evils
Well, folks, I just can’t get away from the campaign. It offers too many lessons for writers!
I recently heard a talk show segment on undecided voters who, reportedly, view their presidential vote as choosing the lesser of two evils. We’ve all experienced situations in which every possible choice has a downside. Psychologists call these avoidance-avoidance conflicts, and writers should love them.
This type of conflict is so common, there are myriad of folk sayings to this point. For example, “Being caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.”
biblical devil
caught between devil and deep blue sea
As a writer, this is often where you want your character(s) to be—”between a rock and a hard place!”
A simple case would be getting dental work, or living with the pain.


“Out of the frying pan, into the fire” is the variation of tolerating the current situation or opting for an alternative that is definitely negative and could be worse.
In this instance, think remaining in a bad marriage or pursuing a divorce. This one can be ramped up with the addition of children, property, pets, and the loss of in-law family.


As a writer, you want the negatives to be as bad as possible. There isn’t much stress in choosing to skip lunch or be late to the hairdresser.


How your character chooses to deal with the stress reveals character and engages readers. Would your character make lists of the negatives and choose the lesser of two evils?
hillary clinton campaign choosing lesser two evils
[Photo credit: Gage Skidmore]
donald trump campaign choosing lesser two evils
[Photo credit: Gage Skidmore]
Or would your character do nothing and let nature take its course? In the current election, that might mean not voting. Another possibility is looking for the silver lining: is there anything positive about candidate ________?


Intra-psychic conflicts (as opposed to armed conflicts, physical battles, etc.) are great tools for writers. Perhaps the conflict is the plot and the entire story is its resolution. What would cause your character conflict? Is your character solely responsible for the outcome? If not, as in the present race for the presidency in which no single vote is the determining factor, shared responsibility would affect the character’s response. Would s/he disclaim responsibility altogether?


Takeaway for writers: Use conflict to strengthen your story—what causes conflict, how your character(s) express their stress, how it is ultimately resolved. Avoidance-avoidance conflicts can raise tension in individual scenes or relationships, or it can be the whole plot. Use it as you will, but use it!

I am also excited to announce that a short story I wrote, “A DIY Life,” has been published to The Penmen Review! The article was posted today and will soon be printed in the Storyteller Magazine as well.

More Writing Lessons from the Campaigns

In Wednesday night’s debate, Clinton said something to the effect that when things are going badly for Trump, he blames others—party leaders, the media, those rigging the election. If I remember correctly—and for the purposes of this blog, that doesn’t really matter—she said that he never takes responsibility for his problems. The point for writers is that she was purporting to identify a pattern of behavior—and patterns of behavior are crucial for your characters.


In this blog, I will focus on behaviors people use to protect themselves when things are going badly. These are what psychologists call defense mechanisms. Not to put too fine a point on it, defense mechanisms allow us to hide from ourselves. Most of us don’t realize when we’re using them.
person hiding defense mechanisms political campaign
If you look online, you can find the 7-9 most frequently used defense mechanisms, the 31 Freudian defense mechanisms, etc. I am going with the 15 defense mechanisms Dr. John M. Grohol classified according to how primitive they are.


Primitive Defense Mechanisms

Primitive Defense Mechanisms are often effective over the short term but less so over the long term: Denial, Regression, Acting Out, Dissociation, Compartmentalization, Projection, Reaction Formation.


Denial: refusing to accept reality or fact, acting as if a panful event, thought, or feeling doesn’t exist. E.g., “I’m not an alcoholic. See how well I’m functioning?”



Regression: going back to an earlier stage of development. E.g., becoming weepy, clinging, maybe reverting to nail-biting or bed-wetting.


Acting Out

child acting out defense mechanisms political campaign
Acting Out: behaving in an extreme way when unable to express thoughts or feelings otherwise. E.g., not able to express anger without throwing things, punching things, etc. Includes temper tantrums and self-injury.



Dissociation: the person disconnects from the real world for a time, to an interior world free of thoughts, feelings, or memories that are too painful to bear.



Compartmentalization: the person keeps different parts of the self in separate cognitive or emotional compartments to avoid feeling conflict. E.g., a person who beats and tortures prisoners as part of a job but remains a loving spouse and parent at home.



Projection: unacceptable thoughts, feelings, or impulses are “projected” onto someone else, often the object of those thoughts, feelings or impulses. E.g., someone who is uncomfortable around people of a different ethnic group may justify avoiding those people by deciding that they don’t welcome outsiders.


Reaction Formation

Reaction Formation: changing unacceptable thoughts, feelings, or impulses into their opposite behaviors. For example, a man who is really unhappy in his marriage might make a point of publicly “worshiping” the mother of his children, bringing her presents for no reason, etc.


More Mature Defense Mechanisms

More Mature Defense Mechanisms are common among adults, and may be all a person needs, even if not ideal: Repression, Displacement, Intellectualization, Rationalization, Undoing.



Repression is when one unconsciously drops unacceptable thoughts, feelings, impulses, or events from memory. It’s done unawares, unlike suppression, when one consciously puts such things aside and refuses to think about them.



Displacement is when thoughts, feelings, or impulses triggered by an off-limits target are addressed toward another, more acceptable one. E.g., a child who cannot show anger toward a parent may take it out on a sibling, pet, or toy.



intellectualization defense mechanisms political campaign
Intellectualization is dealing with issues by keeping emotions at a distance and focusing on the rational argument or information gathering. For example, someone who is diagnosed with cancer to keeps fear and anxiety at bay by learning every possible thing about treatments, prognosis, etc.



Rationalization is, essentially,espousing a reasonable explanation rather than the real explanation. For example, a man is dumped by a woman he really, really likes and decides he probably just wasn’t rich enough for her.



Undoing is trying to make up for past behavior. For example, if you hurt someone’s feelings and then try to be extra nice, complimentary, generous, etc.


Mature Defense Mechanisms

Mature Defense Mechanisms are the most constructive and helpful, but more difficult to achieve: Sublimation, Compensation, Assertiveness.



Sublimation is redirecting unacceptable impulses, thoughts, or impulses into more acceptable channels. Examples would include releasing sexual impulses through non-sexual exercise, redirecting anger into humor or fantasy.



Compensation is counterbalancing perceived weaknesses with strength in other areas. Done well, it can reinforce positive self-esteem.



assertiveness defense mechanisms political campaign
Assertiveness is fulfilling your needs in a manner that is respectful, direct, firm—and appropriate. Assertive people strike a balance between speaking up for themselves and listening to other people.


What defense mechanisms seem to be exhibited by each of the political candidates?


white house defense mechanisms political campaign

Most people have more than one means of defense, but tend to rely on a few more often than others. In the extreme, for an addict, the drug of choice is the answer to every problem. As a writer, you need to understand how your characters cope. What are their patterns of behavior? And how effective are they?

What Writers Can Learn from Political Campaigns

First, we get the slogans.



Slogans, like story titles, are intended to appeal to the target audience and to convey something of the contents.


Emotionally loaded words and images are powerful. Calling someone a liar isn’t nearly as powerful as labeling that person a serial liar. Both campaigns—and particularly partisan supporters—have thrown out words like criminal, racist, misogynist, rapist, war-monger, etc.
donald trump
[Photo credit: Michael Vadon (Creative Commons)]
hillary clinton
[Photo is in the public domain]

Is he a strong leader or an angry bully? Is she warm and friendly or attempting to appease? Images and actions are subject to interpretation.

During the second presidential debate Trump often walked behind Clinton when she was talking. Was that an attempt at intimidation? Or was he just trying to maximize his time on camera?


tim kaine
Governor Tim Kaine [Photo is in the public domain]
mike pence
Governor Mike Pence [Photo credit: Gage Skidmore (Creative Commons)]
A presidential candidate typically chooses a running mate to fill some perceived deficit in the ticket. It might be geographic or demographic appeal. Or it might be opposing temperaments and skills. As a writer, consider the complimentary natures of characters. A classic example is the Star Trek characters of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, who have often been labeled, respectively, the id, ego, and superego of the series. Complimentary characters typically cooperate and strengthen the relationship. Characters that have the same traits often compete.


president barack obama
President Barack Obama

vladimir putin
Vladimir Putin [Photo credit: www.kremlin.ru (Creative Commons)]
In fiction, as in campaigns, people are known by the company they keep. Whether Clinton and Trump are helped or hurt by these associations depends entirely on how the POV person perceives Obama and Putin to start with. Again, this is subject to interpretation. Characters might agree on facts, traits, etc., but still react differently depending on their values. This is a good way for writers to reveal a character’s character.
Writers, consider the usefulness of denial. I won’t give examples here, but refer you to any of the political fact-checking sites.
When a candidate says something that is demonstrably not true—or denies speech or action that are part of the public record—what’s to be gained? Will sheer repetition of the untruth create doubt? Will the listener/viewer not bother to check for evidence?


And then there is the power of innuendo. Clinton has repeated implied that Trump’s failure to disclose his tax returns means he has much to hide. Trump has repeatedly said that there must be more damning evidence in Clinton’s e-mails than has been revealed.


As a writer, having one character speculate about another can be very effective. Is she pregnant? Is he cheating on his wife? Did she steal from the collection plate? Did he kill his business partner? Plant the seed and then adding, “I don’t know. I’m just saying.”
I’ve heard that people have shown up in doctors’ offices and emergency rooms so affected by the campaign that it’s being labeled Election Stress Syndrome. The media certainly focuses on emotionally loaded words and actions.


gary johnson william weld
Governors Gary Johnson and William Weld [Photo credit: Gary Johnson Presidental Campaign (Creative Commons)]
Takeaway for writers: Whatever your political leanings, look to this campaign as an opportunity. Examine what’s said and done on all sides and strengthen your own winning writing.


Want to publish a best-seller? Consider hiring a ghostwriter—or being one! In this blog, I will use as my case in point Tony Schwartz’s ghostwriting of Donald Trump’s memoir, The Art of the Deal.
Book cover of The Art of the Deal
The Art of the Deal
My impression is that most ghost-written books are memoirs, books about people of interest to the public who lack the skill and/or the time to write a book themselves. But there’s no reason that a book of any sort couldn’t be ghostwritten, with the possible exception of textbooks.
Tony Schwartz, Trump’s ghostwriter
Tony Schwartz, Trump’s ghostwriter
Ghostwriting is a recognized profession, and can be lucrative. The Canadian Writers Union sets the minimum fee for ghostwriting a book at $25,000. But it’s an individually negotiated contract, and less experienced writers might be paid $10,000-$15,000. According to Writer’s Digest in 2011, one experienced ghostwriter averaged $15,000-$25,000 for a book of 50,000-75,000 words. Another made $12,000 for a 30,000-word book. A third was paid $22,500 for a 65,000-word book.They say that very successful collaborators earn $30,000-$50,000 per book.
The New Yorker July 2016 cover
Cover of The New Yorker, July 2016
But there are other arrangements. According to Schwartz, in his interview with Jane Mayer for “Trump’s Boswell Speaks” in the July 25th, 2016 issue of The New Yorker, Schwartz earned 50% of the book’s $500,000 advance and half of the royalties. Given that the book spent 48 weeks on the Times best-seller list, that was truly substantial!


Jane Mayer, staff writer for The New Yorker
Money is clearly an upside to ghostwriting. But there are downsides as well. If one’s client doesn’t interview well, you might need a work-around.  Schwartz was virtually joined at the hip with Trump for eighteen months, traveling with him, listening in on his phone calls, etc.


Then, too, check out “The Brutally Honest Truth About Ghostwriting” from 2013. They advise that one does the job, gets paid, and gets out. There can be personality issues, as discussed by Schwartz. And post-best-seller remorse.


The New Yorker July 2016
Mayer’s article about Schwartz and Trump
So maybe ghostwriting isn’t for you, from either side of the contract. But it’s always good to know the options!